On occasion, we see something fly across our vision, a flash of light or something that suddenly appears almost overnight causing anxiety or distress. All of these can be conditions of the eye and reasons for you to get a yearly checkup.

Most of these conditions are usually harmless but on rare occasion can signify an underlying condition. It is important to be seen by a medical professional as soon as possible if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

What are Floaters?

Floaters are reported as many different shapes and sizes.  However, most commonly, they are reported as cobwebs, tiny black specs, or like clouds passing over the vision.  Sometimes people feel they are seeing a bug flying around their vision, and even try to swat them!  Other people see floaters as small circles or lines in their vision or feel that there is a hair in front of their eye.  These floaters move when you move your eyes and will usually follow wherever you look.  Floaters move across when looking at a monochromatic background such as a white wall, blue sky, or a white sheet of paper.

Where do Floaters Come From?

Floaters are actually coming from inside the eye.  In the back part of the eye, there is a structure called the vitreous gel, which liquefies over our lifetimes.  As the gel in the eye breaks down forming clumps or disorganized strands, shadows of these fibers are projected on the retina, causing you to perceive a floater in your vision. While these floaters can be irritating, they are harmless. They tend to be noticed when you are looking at white backgrounds such as walls, the sky and while reading.

However, some flashes and floaters can let you know something is happening to your retina. You could be experiencing vitreous detachments or a detached retina, which must be diagnosed and treated.

What Causes Floaters?

As you age, the vitreous gel loses so much of its strength and structure, that it will separate from the retina, which is a thin tissue lining the back wall of the eye.  When the gel detaches from the retina, people often see one or more new floaters and/or flashing lights in their vision.  The process of the gel pulling away from the back wall of the eye is called a posterior vitreous detachment and is something that will happen to everyone at some point in his or her life, most commonly after age 50-60.  This process is an age-related change, but in some cases, the retina may actually tear as the gel pulls away.  A retinal tear needs to be detected and treated very quickly since it can lead to a retinal detachment, which may cause vision loss or even blindness.

What are Flashes of Light?

As the gel pulls away from the back wall of the eye, you may develop new floaters as well as flashes of light.  Flashes of light may appear like a lightning streak or arc of light or even similar to a camera flash.  These flashes of light may persist for weeks to months.

What are the Symptoms?

You should see your eye doctor as soon as possible if you experience:

  • One or several new, large floaters or “showers” of floaters which appear suddenly
  • Sudden flashes of light, especially if they persist
  • Loss of your side/peripheral vision, as if a shade or curtain has been drawn over your field of vision

What is the Treatment for Floaters and Flashes?

Floaters and flashes will eventually fade with time and become less bothersome, but the length of time to resolution is different for each individual.  Some floaters may remain long-term.  There is currently no treatment to get rid of floaters.

While not all flashes and floaters are serious, you should always have an eye examination by an eye doctor if you have a new onset of symptoms to ensure there is no damage to your retina.  If your doctor determines there has been damage to your retina, you will be referred to a retina specialist for treatment with possible laser or surgery.

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